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What does the code say?

So, guess what the most common question I get asked as part of my job.  It’s usually some version of, “can I legally do this?”  It’s nice to be considered an expert, but that question can be much more complex than it seems at first glance, and I’m going to try to explain why.

Some things are easy, especially with new construction.  Certain items are absolutely non-negotiable, for instance, stair riser heights and tread depths.  If you’re building a new stair, it has to meet those standards, no ifs, ands or buts.  But what if you’re just renovating a building, do your stairs need to meet those requirements.  And here’s where we have to play the guessing game because the building codes can be less than clear.  First, there is often more than one code applying to a project.  There are building codes, life safety codes, health department regulations, fire safety regulations, flood zone regulations, FEMA requirements, etc. and they don’t always agree.  A great example of this was an office renovation I did a while back.  The existing stairs were ridiculously below code, to the point where I don’t think they had gotten an inspection when they were put in to begin with.  They were overly steep and way too narrow for use in an office building which this building had already been.  The original designs called for the stairs to remain untouched and as we were renovating less than 50% (which can be a very fluid concept in itself), we felt we could leave them as is.  The first thing we realized was that the building code was going to make us provide a fire separation barrier around the stairs, which wasn’t too big of a deal, more of a slight pain than anything else.  Then, the life safety code official (a separate entity) required us to widen the stairs because while they were wide enough to be left alone by the building code, the life safety code required all stairs to be 8″ wider or they didn’t count as stairs for emergency escape purposes.  This meant now we were building a new stair, so we had to also change the pitch of the stair.  The net effect of these required changes was that the stair now now longer fit in the building without ripping out a lot of walls.  This was not acceptable to the owner as it ate up a lot of the office space that he needed, so we decided to pursue an exterior stair which would allow us to keep the interior layout pretty much as we had designed it originally.  Now we hit a problem with the setback and had to get a variance from the planning and zoning department to put a stair into the setback.  Then we almost had a problem with the stair being too close to the property line for the life safety code (luckily we were just barely far enough away.)  Finally, we realized we had to close in all of the windows on the rear of the building because we still had to protect the stair from a fire and fire rated glazing is incredibly expensive (because it’s usually a clear ceramic rather than a glass product.)  This became a huge headache for my office as we had to keep revising the plans to satisfy different code officials and an even larger one for the client since we quite quickly blew through his budget to bring his office up to current codes.  Funny enough, during my initial walk-through, I had commented that the stairs were a potential problem, but I had drastically underestimated it because I had no precedent for a situation this unique.  It also runs very contrary to expectations as common sense says that evacuating two offices from the second floor shouldn’t really require much in the way of a stair, and in a real emergency, you could jump out the windows we were planning to add to those offices (which we had to remove because of the stair.)  One thing to always keep in mind when deciding if something is legal, the code book does not always take common sense into account, and is often written for projects much larger in scale than yours in mind.

The other problem, besides conflicting codes, is inconsistent application.  As an example, I do the majority of my work in one county with a relatively lax and helpful set of building code officials.  I’m not saying they don’t enforce the code, but they do take a liberal interpretation of it and try to help you achieve your goals within the codes guidelines.  Another county I work in sometimes contains a US Department of Justice office, the people who are basically in charge of enforcing Americans with Disabilities Act standards.  As you might imagine, their interpretation of the accessibility requirements of the codes are much more draconian which makes rehabbing commercial spaces in that county much more difficult.  However, their interpretation is as valid as the other, and  it falls on us to guess their responses to unique situations.  And what do you do if you disagree with the code official’s interpretation?  You usually have to suck it up as it’s a tough situation.  The building official is kind of like the commissioner of the NFL, he makes the rulings and then decides if those rulings are fair.  Sometimes you can convince them that they have made a mistake, but if that fails, your only chance to reverse their rulings are to go political or judicial.  The officials work for county or town offices, and sometimes bringing in the mayor, town or county council, or other elected official can work, but you will make an enemy of that official for life so I usually refer to that as the nuclear option.  Luckily for me, usually, elected officials are reticent to over-ride their bureaucrats, so it’s not usually an effective method.  The other way is to sue, and while I have had clients sue towns and counties over code interpretations, that rarely ends in victory for the client, is very expensive, and is time consuming.  I have been involved in a few of these suits, but I don’t believe anybody really wins.

So, next time you want to know if something is legal, I’ll be happy to help, but keep in mind, the more complex the question, the more complex my answer will be because not only is the issue of something’s legality complex, it’s also ever shifting.  Every 3-12 years, depending on the entity, the code changes which means that we have a complex and moving target.